How to deal with the epidemic of over-tourism

Some well-known tourist spots are underprepared against nature’s vagaries and seasonal rush. One way out could be to charge a tourist tax and use it to help lesser-known destinations
Image used for representational purposes only.
Image used for representational purposes only.Express illustrations | Sourav Roy

I drove over to Udhagamandalam or Ooty the other day. The idea was to spend two precious nights in cooler climes, enjoy a much-craved-for break and come back refreshed. Ooty was cool for sure. Additional bonus: It rained cats and dogs. Thunderstorms were the norm. The traffic on narrow mountain roads was jammed, and reminded me of good old Bengaluru and its bumper to bumper traffic. Every tourist attraction I passed made the traffic move slower. There were people everywhere. All in a hurry, but nowhere to go, thanks to the traffic jam.

This holiday was no holiday really. I can imagine the plight of the holiday-goers coming in from distant locations and standing in sweaty queues to get their entry ticket to the Botanical Garden, the Rose Garden and the brand new Karnataka Siri Horticulture Garden.

Ooty is a big holiday destination for literally everyone. Come school holiday season, everyone makes a beeline to the queen of the hills. Just to get jammed. Chaos is most certainly a big part of the Indian holiday for sure. A lot of us enjoy it as well.

Even as I bemoan the state of the tourist as she knifes out a holiday from  the chaos, I equally pity the life and times of the locals. Every hill station like Ooty, Kodaikanal, Yercaud, Shimla, Nainital and more has a local populace. This populace is of two kinds. Those who live there, having bought into a hill-station lifestyle for one. This segment is full of complaints. This segment even moves out during the busy season, unable to bear the sight of what happens. The second segment of people are those who make a living out of the tourist populace. Every hotelier, restaurant, cab driver, tourist guides and their ilk love this season. This is the time money is made. Even out of the mayhem.

As tourist destinations in India struggle to manage tourist populations, overcrowding and over-clutter of every kind, the world is waking up to the buzz phrase of tourism over-exploited: overtourism.

Is overtourism here then as a monster to be battled by local populaces? The tourist and the local have a love-hate relationship. A Goan hates and loves the tourist. The one who makes money out of the tourist loves it all. The one who is a resident and hates all that the tourist brings (which includes noise, clutter, alcohol, drugs and more) hates it completely. There is nothing in between. What’s the solution then?

Public interest litigations have been the norm in this space. There are scores of people who come out and object to every piece of overcrowding and every piece of noise-pollution that destroys the old ecosystem for which the destination has become what it has become today.

Recent examples of solutions that dot the overtourism space are interesting items to take note of. The Madras High Court, for one, has issued a notification that vehicles that enter Ooty and Kodaikanal from May 7 to  June 30, 2024,  need to procure a pre-registered e-pass for entry and use. A clean way to control in advance what goes in and out of these high-traffic holiday destinations. In many ways, this is going to pave the way for controlled and monitored tourism. In many other ways, spontaneity will die, and hard planning and control will replace it all.

Tourism as we know it across the most happening spots across the world will change as local populaces protest. The earning part of the local populace will still want the tourist in, but will want it all regulated as well. The non-monetising part of the populace will want it all stopped completely. The key idea is to get back to the pristine ways of cool Coonoor, or equally the pristine hygiene heights of Mount Everest. In many ways, the concept of re-wilding seems to resonate with every destination that has been over-exploited. Must a section of Machu Picchu be declared a no-tourist zone for ten years just to let it rejuvenate and go the natural way?

As of now, the whole over-exploited parts of the tourism world are up in arms. Those that have not woken up yet, will. Tourism has traditionally been considered a nice and happy activity that gets people to travel and discover new places, enjoy the local offering, spend some money and return to their normal city lives. Not anymore. Tourism is progressively getting a bad name. From the receiving end of the tourist, local populaces have enjoyed the attention in the beginning. Distant and otherwise rural hamlets  have come to the mainstream, at times rivalling the incomes of big cities in their neighbourhood. This very population is now under struggle to maintain the ecosystem of the original destination. Ooty for one had hills and dales. These are far and few now. In the Middle Ages of Ooty’s transition, the hills had green cabbage patches. Even that is a thing of the past today. Construction of every variety, both temporary and permanent, has made this holiday destination a shanty town of kinds. The goose that laid the golden eggs has been cooked. The weather is still good, thanks to nature and its kindness. But for how long?

Overtourism is today a word that defines the over-exploitation of greed. When there are too many tourists anywhere, that is overtourism. But what is too much? The greed to exploit knows sustainability tricks. Every generation exploits for itself and for the fabled comfort of its next generation. In the bargain, there are too many hotels that come up, too many restaurants, and too many other standard accoutrements of comfort a tourist looks forward to. The tourist comes in, spends his money, and speeds out. The tourist-class persona in every tourist destination benefits. Livelihoods continue to thrive. The investor makes his money. Salaries get paid out. The destination gets nothing back.

The standard complaint of an overtourism-affected destination is that it gets robbed of its pristine glory, gets overcrowded, and  gets no time to regenerate to face another season. Spain, Italy and Croatia are classic destinations that have brought overtourism to the centre stage.

What are the solutions then? A tourist tax that is staggered over the season and non-season is a possible one. Money has a way of restricting entry, but will this make every destination available only for the elite classes who can afford it? For me, a great thing would be self-regulation as far as a tourist is concerned. When you decide on a destination, check out a lesser-known similar destination. Precious tourism money will move to the more needy locations and lessen the burden on the already overburdened ones.

The next time round, it’s not Ooty for me. It will be Yelagiri instead. What say?

Harish Bijoor

Brand Guru and Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc

(Views are personal)


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